Palestinian sources revealed on Tuesday that the UNRWA has made a decision to reduce food rations distributed every three months to the refugees. The decision aims at paving the way, the sources added, for the complete cancellation of all food rations within the next two years.
According to the sources, the UNRWA director in Lebanon, Richard Cook, recently issued a decision stipulating a 55-percent reduction in food rations. They added that flour, which had formerly been supplied alongside other foods, will no longer be distributed.
Food rations have been distributed to Palestinian refugees since 1948, but over the years donor countries have decreased their contributions, resulting in a reduction of available funds with which to provide the rations. Palestinian sources were concerned by information leaked from UNRWA headquarters that services extended to refugees, such as the rations and health care, would end in the coming two years, especially after UNRWA slashed the number of workers who distribute the rations.
Currently, a single team of 10 UNRWA employees handle the rations distribution in each of the five districts where refugee camps are located in Lebanon, whereas previously teams of 10 were present in each camp.
UNRWA members could not be contacted for comment.
Meanwhile, Palestinian popular committees continued their protest against a related UNRWA decision to cut medical coverage, once more closing down the agency's clinics and health centers in refugee camps across the country, a claim the UNRWA refutes.
The protests were stepped up after a meeting scheduled to be held in Sidon between Cook and Palestinian Liberation Organization committees was canceled and relocated to UNRWA headquarters in Beirut.
Lieutenant Colonel Abu Said al-Youssef, a member of the Higher Follow-Up Committee of popular committees in Lebanon, said the Palestinians have yet to see a positive response from Cook, despite contacts made by the PLO commander in Lebanon and the popular committees.
Youssef said the protests will continue until the UNRWA meets the refugees' "fair" demands, most notably the reversal of this month's decision to partner with the Beirut General University Hospital (BGUH) instead of the Hammoud Hospital in Sidon.
The committees' information official Abu Rabih Derbas said: "Violating our people's rights for services is strictly forbidden," adding that the refugees will counter "UNRWA's arbitrary policy with further popular action."
The health-care decision reportedly also includes a care reduction to a third-grade level.
But according to a UNRWA statement issued in response to an article published in Tuesday's edition of The Daily Star, the "UNRWA has not reduced the quality nor quantity of medical care provided to Palestinian refugees, rather the contrary."
The statement read: "A new agreement has indeed been signed between UNRWA and the BGUH for the treatment of cold cases of tertiary nature (i.e. treatment of a specialized nature requiring multi-specialty interventions).
"The decision was made with the best interests of the Palestinian refugee patients in mind, because it gives him or her first-class treatment at a very reasonable cost, whilst UNRWA's contribution remains the same, thereby reducing the cost to the patient.
"In addition, the majority of patients treated, who come from all over Lebanon, will have less distance to travel.
"UNRWA would like, particularly, to point out that this applies to tertiary care and that all arrangements for the provision of secondary hospital care, i.e. uncomplicated cases, and for open-heart surgery, remain the same as in previous years, provided at contracted hospitals in each area."
The statement further stressed that UNRWA "is not handing over its medical services to the government health-care system, but has taken advantage of high-quality services provided at a competitive price, thereby improving its services to Palestine refugees.
The statement indicated that, contrary to Palestinian claims that certain medicines were no longer available, "the agency confirms that all essential drugs, for both acute and chronic needs, in accordance with the World Health Organization's list of essential drugs, are available at all UNRWA health centers."
The director of UNRWA affairs in Lebanon is to meet with Palestinian Popular Committees and senior representatives of the refugee community in "the next few days to further explain the Agency's position on these issues," the statement said.